An Interview with Toni Tipton-Martin

I first met Toni Tipton-Martin nearly ten years ago at the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. At the time Toni was the President of the board and I was just getting to know what has probably become my favorite food-oriented, non-profit organization (our annual Camp Bacon is a fundraiser for SFA). I go down there almost every year to learn about Southern food and culture, study complex issues and meet up with great people from all walks of food world life.

This year’s visit was no exception. When Toni and I started talking at this past autumn’s symposium, she shared a bit about the work she’s been doing on this great project called The Jemima Code. The more of the story she told, the clearer it was to me that we needed to get her up to Ann Arbor to share her work. This year’s 8th annual African-American Foodways dinner at the Roadhouse seemed like an ideal venue, and I’m thrilled that the dates worked.

Toni will be sharing the story of The Jemima Code at the African-American Dinner this coming Tuesday evening, January 22. This event will revolve around food, as we taste dishes prepared from some of the African-American cookbooks that form the core of the project. While we’re eating, Toni will give an overview of the Jemima Code. Tickets are $45 and you can reserve your spot by calling 734.663.3663.

Toni will also give a special presentation at ZingTrain on the evening of Wednesday, January 23rd. This event will feature a presentation by Toni on the topic of diversity in the work- place. We’ll also have some snacks to tide you over, because it can’t be a Zingerman’s event without any food! Tickets are $25, $10 for students.

Both events will provide an opportunity to see the amazing, nearly eight-foot high photos of “the ladies” (as Toni calls the African-American cooks, and cookbook authors) featured in the project.

I’m thrilled to have Toni up in Ann Arbor to share her story. Here’s a little preview interview I did with her just before the holidays.          -ARI

Toni-Tipton-MartinARI: Hi Toni! I’m really excited and honored that we get to host you for these events. Can you tell everyone a bit about the project?

TONI: The Jemima Code is my way to tie together real African-American cooks to American culinary history so that we can view them as role models instead of the kind of the kitchen laborer, “idiot-savant” figures they’ve been portrayed to be in plantation history. Even though we have a lot of African-American culinary history recorded, it’s mostly known only in academic settings, and that has a very limited reach. The contributions of these great African-American culinary professionals of the last 150 years are obscured in an era of Food Network stars.

Historically, African-American cooks were defined by plantation cooking. But they were never acknowledged for the great food that they cooked at work, in their professional contexts. It really doesn’t make sense that way. We recognize Charlie Trotter or Rachel Ray or any of the modern celebrities for the cooking that they share with us on a professional level. We don’t evaluate them for what they do at home for their kids. So, I wanted to see what these African-American cooks had done in their day-to- day work, and do it without looking through the lens of sexism or racism. If we were only going to evaluate these women and men on their culinary ability on a professional level, what would we see?

That’s how I feel we’ll be able to use them as role models. When you look at them as a group, you can see that they brought a wide range of skills and that we can learn from their work at many levels. We can learn from them about healthy cooking. We can learn about vegetarianism because there were some that did that for a living. We can learn about beautiful food from the ones that were amazing professional caterers. We can learn about order in the kitchen, we can learn about entrepreneurial skill from women like Abby Fisher and Malinda Russell who had small businesses back in the 19th century. They’re all things that we just don’t stop long enough to think about. But, they had to be good business people or they wouldn’t have been able to sell their products in the market.

I wanted to get real people to talk about their history and real cooking. People like Freda de Knight. She wrote the Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish in 1948. It was an anthology cookbook, and it takes the home cook all the way from appetizers to desserts. One of the things she made clear with that book is that it’s not true that African-American cooks can only cook Southern dishes.

So that’s my goal with the project. To get people thinking about the great professional culinary contribution of African-American cooks, and making the work they did relevant to people of every age and every background.

ARI: What got you thinking about it?

TONI: A long time ago when I was a reporter at the L.A. Times I discovered there were lots of references in Southern books to African-American cooks but they were generally just acknowledged for providing the labor in the kitchen. The black cook was dismissed as an afterthought. And that just did not mesh with my own experience. So being a good reporter I started looking for a primary source, someone to interview. I was just trying to gather as much information as I could. And cookbooks were the logical place to get that first person report. So I started collecting cook- books written by African-Americans.

John Egerton, who writes beautifully about Southern history, food and culture, and was one of the founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance, got me started on the cookbooks. I was a young naïve journalist and I hadn’t gotten much affirmation for my work. But, I went to hear him speak; he had a Xerox copy of a book he had just encountered at the Library of Congress. I started talking to him, and he said, “I didn’t know what I was gonna do with this when I made the copy, but you should have it.” And what he told me was validated by a talk I had with Jan Longone (founder of the Longone Center for Culinary Research,and Culinary Curator at University of Michigan’s William L. Clements Library)

Doris Witt wrote a great book called, Black Hunger: Soul Food And America in 2004. There’s a bibliography in the back and I decided I was going to get a copy of each book. So, every time I was able to find and buy one of the books I would cross it off the list. When eBay got going I started finding them all over. I paid a lot of money for some them. It became almost an obsession for me. And now I have almost all of those on the list!

ARI: What’s your background? How long have you been working with culinary history?

TONI: I’ve spent about twenty-five years as a food and nutrition reporter. I grew up in LA. My parents came from the South but they left skid marks when they moved west. They didn’t talk about the South much at all. The only connection I had was through relatives. My mother was vegetarian, a tofu- and yogurt- eating Californian. I was a beach girl. And I started at the LA Times as a food and nutrition writer right out of college. But as an African-American I was invisible on a staff of 16. I was working for Ruth Reichl when the job of Food Editor at the Plain Dealer in Cleveland became available. She said “Of course you have to take this job if you want to pursue this writing and your books.” As part of a staff of 16 at the Times I would never have been invited anywhere. So, when the Cleveland Plain Dealer offered me a position as a food writer I decided to take it. While I was there, John Egerton invited me to the first meeting of the Southern Foodways Alliance back in 1997. So, I’ve been around food history for a long time.

One important thing that happened to advance the project in Cleveland was a woman named Vera Beck who ran the test kitchen at the Plain Dealer. She was from Alabama. She was the most gracious, generous, amazing cook, but she was completely dismissed and disregarded at the paper. I never got over that, or forgot it. She helped me get in touch with my Southern self. Growing up as I did, I didn’t have much connection to my Southern roots. She really helped me connect with the food she would cook for my breakfast while I was pregnant with my middle son—grits, fried green tomatoes, biscuits—things that I love. I got to see in her the expression of love and wisdom that was communicated in her food. And I saw it in a professional way that I hadn’t seen in my aunts when they were cooking at home when I was growing up.

ARI: What has the reaction been to The Jemima Code so far?

TONI: So far, it’s been really amazing and surprising. When I first started, I was giving the talks with just the photographic images of the women from The Bluegrass Cookbook [by Minnie Fox, which Toni has published in facsimile] in beautiful ornate picture frames. And then the next iteration was to put the photo images into a slide show. But then, I was invited to install an exhibit of the cookbook authors in Houston. I thought “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make it so other people had the same re- action to these women that I did?” There’s a mix of reactions. There’s an expression of pride, like, “These are my people and they contributed in ways I didn’t know about.” There’s a little bit of angst, too, that comes out when other people view the images, especially in the South. The audiences in the South are pretty quiet when I present. But after I speak there’s always a long line to come up and ask me questions or make private comments as people wrap their heads around it in a personal way.

That’s what’s been so cool about blowing the images up to such a big size. Why 7-1⁄2 foot tall images? That was just the height of the ceiling at Project Row Houses where we showed them in Houston. I didn’t want them to seem too big because black women were so often portrayed that way. But, it turned out that the size is ideal for engaging people on a deeply personal level. For instance, connecting with “the ladies” allowed people from the South to explore a part of their upbringing that you hadn’t been allowed to talk about. A friend from Charleston once talk- ed to me about how he worshipped this black woman who was in the kitchen when he was growing up, but then hearing his family disparaging black people in the living room was very unsettling. He’s not the only one that talked about having to close their whole memory about that era, but this exhibit allows them to reopen that set of memories. In that sense, it’s an extension of the work of Southern Foodways Alliance. The South still has plenty of wounds to heal.

Please join us for these very special events: 

8th Annual African American Dinner
With special guest Toni Tipton-Martin
Tuesday, January 22, 7-10 p.m.

More information & reservations here

Deliciousness & Diversity: A Discussion with Toni Tipton-Martin
Wednesday, January 23, 7-830 p.m.
More information & reservations here.